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Like an (acting) virgin: five terrible (and one terribly good) Madonna performances


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You don’t just become the Worst Actress of the Century overnight. It takes years of hard work and crummy performances. That’s why Madonna is the Queen of Pop and the Queen of Razzies, where she’s been nominated a staggering sixteen times, taking home nine different Golden Raspberry Awards — NINE!! — including five Worst Actress trophies– FIVE!! — and the dubious title of Worst Actress of the Century. Yikes. The poor woman has more raspberries than an Ocean Spray bottling plant.

Whatever you think of her as an actress, Madonna clearly loves movies. Why else would she put up with the abuse? She sure as hell doesn’t need the money. In recent years, she’s moved away from acting and tried her hand behind the camera, where she expressed herself directing 2008’s “Filth and Wisdom” and the brand-new romantic drama “W.E.” starring Abbie Cornish and James D’Arcy. Though the film has received mixed reviews from critics, it also played the prestigious Venice and Toronto Film Festivals last fall.

With “W.E.” opening in limited release, a reconsideration of Madonna’s life onscreen felt very in vogue this week. So we watched a bunch of her movies and found that some, but not all, of the Madonna-bashing was justified. Yes, she’s made some terrible movies. But she’s also made some good ones, including “Desperately Seeking Susan,” “Dick Tracy,” “A League of Their Own,” and one obscure title that might be both her best film and her best performance. Watching Madonna act is like watching Michael Jordan play baseball — you’re witnessing one of the most naturally gifted people in history in one field willfully discard that talent to do something they’re clearly not naturally gifted at. It can be frustrating, it can be pitiful, but it can also be inspiring. With that in mind, let’s run through the Madonna movies you should probably avoid, and the one you should definitely check out.

Five Terrible…

“Shanghai Surprise” (1986)
Directed by Jim Goddard
Sample Dialogue:
“Guns cause pain. Opium eases pain.”

After scoring her first cinematic hit as a woman who acted, talked, and dressed like Madonna (in 1985’s “Desperately Seeking Susan”), the Material Girl decided to try something new in her next film. In 1986’s “Shanghai Surprise” she shifted gears and played a missionary living in China in the 1930s. SPOILER ALERT: it was a disaster. Madonna’s Gloria is ordered by her boss to team with a shifty American ex-pat (Sean Penn) and find a lost stash of opium, supposedly so it can be used to help injured soldiers. Because that’s what priests do, right? They try to find enormous quantities of the most dangerously addictive drug on the planet so they can give it to sick people. As you can see, “Shanghai Surprise”‘s problems extend well beyond Madonna’s performance, but she doesn’t help matters with her tedious and altogether unconvincing good girl routine. Penn and Madonna were newly married at the time of shooting, yet the pair display a remarkable lack of chemistry, even during their one sex scene. If you can’t believably play attracted to your actual husband, that doesn’t bode well for your future as an actress.

“Who’s That Girl” (1987)
Directed by James Foley
Sample Dialogue:
“Explain what, Trott? That we were buyin’ four stolen semi-automatic weapons on your gold card?”

“Who are you?” Griffin Dunne’s Louden Trott asks rhetorically moments into 1987’s “Who’s That Girl.” It’s a fair question; Madonna’s not playing Madonnna here, but she’s not playing a recognizable human being, either. Her Nikki Finn appears in the opening credits as a Betty Boop-style bombshell cartoon — and that’s basically how she’s portrayed during the live-action port of the movie too, up to and including Madonna’s nails-on-a-chalkboard high-pitched cutesy voice. The plot of “Who’s That Girl” is a riff on classic ’30s screwball comedies like “Bringing Up Baby” — Madonna’s Nikki is the irrepressible spitfire who livens up Dunn’s ultra-square tax attorney. But that brings up comparisons to “Baby” star Katharine Hepburn. Said comparisons are not kind.

“Body of Evidence” (1993)
Directed by Uli Edel
Sample Dialogue:
“Don’t look so hurt, Alan. I fucked you, I fucked Andrew, I fucked Frank. That’s what I do; I fuck. And it made me 8 million dollars!”

This 1993 erotic thriller was pretty clearly made as a knock-off of “Basic Instinct,” with Madonna in the Sharon Stone role of blonde femme fatale. Madonna, I know Sharon Stone (not personally, obviously; like, in her movies) and you, madam, are no Sharon Stone. But why should she want to be? She’s Madonna. Becoming — and staying — one of the biggest pop stars in the world for decades takes more than luck and looks, it takes talent, dedication, authenticity, and originality. In the world of music, Madonna has all that — and as a result, she inspired countless imitators (and still does; see Lady Gaga). In movies, though, she was too often the imitator, as in “Body of Evidence,” where she plays a blatantly Stone-esque seductress who puts the moves on her lawyer in a murder trial (where she is accused of literally sexing someone to death). She’s faking it here on more than one level.

“Four Rooms” (1995)
Directed by Allison Anders, et. al.
Sample Dialogue:
“To reverse this evil which has been done, I make this offering to the Divine One. A whore not, an innocent was, for whom I seized a virgin’s blood.”

In fairness to Madonna, everyone in her segment of the anthology film “Four Rooms” gives a bad performance, including respected actors like Tim Roth, Lili Taylor, and Ione Skye. But she’s still the worst of the bunch as a member of weird coven of witches attempting to resurrect a goddess via a ritual that involves rhymed chants, awkward dances, and just a pinch of semen (that’s where Roth comes in). Madonna is usually at her best onscreen playing Madonna (see: “Desperately Seeking Susan,” “Truth or Dare,” etc.). Here, glammed out in a leather mermaid gown, with huge rock star sunglasses, she’s too much Madonna in a role that could use about 70% less glitz (and about 40% more rhymes about semen).

“Swept Away” (2002)
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Sample Dialogue:
“Are we being punished because we’re rich?”

In this infamous bomb, Madge plays a spoiled woman who sadistically tortures a crewman on a private cruise from Greece to Italy, then gets stranded with him on a deserted island. Madonna’s Amber is so repulsive that every insanely cruel line — “You don’t need eyes to bake cakes!” or “Your t-shirt offends me. It’s revolting. Change it.”– just makes you want to turn the movie off and watch something else. So, um, good job, I guess! The film, directed by Madonna’s then-husband Guy Ritchie (notice how things don’t turn out well for poor Madonna when the phrase “then-husband” is involved), does such a brutally effective job of making Amber unlikable that when the time comes for her characters’ reversal and repentance, it feels totally implausible. If her performance, particularly in the second half of the movie, was half as carefully crafted as her admittedly impressive biceps, Madonna would have won an Oscar instead of a Razzie. If you were stranded on a desert island with nothing but this movie to watch you’d probably look for the nearest cliff to throw yourself off of it.

And One Impressive Performance…

“Dangerous Game” (1993)

Directed by Abel Ferrara
Sample Dialogue:
“Why did God create men? Because vibrators can’t mow the lawn.”

Interestingly, immediately after Madonna gave after maybe her worst performance in “Body of Evidence” she gave maybe her best in “Dangerous Game.” Any tentativeness or artificiality — and there isn’t much, actually — works for the character, an out-of-her-depth TV actress brought in to secure financing for a director’s uncommercial project. Harvey Keitel plays the director, Eddie Israel, a man making a movie about a marriage falling apart as a way to express his ambivalence about his own crumbling marriage. His film within the film is called “Mother of Mirrors,” and there are mirrors everywhere in this story, both literally and figuratively (Keitel’s wife, for example, is played by Nancy Ferrara, Abel Ferrara’s actual wife). Some of Keitel’s lengthy meditations on God and morality (rendered on video as “Mother of Mirrors” — or is that “Dangerous Game?” — rehearsal footage) are a tad too ponderous, but when his character is on the set, working with his actors, things get really interesting. Trying to draw an authentic performance out of Ms. Ciccone, Israel berates and belittles her from off camera (“Do the lines, you commercial piece of shit!”). It works — the attitude, the posturing, the bombshell character all fades away, revealing a bruised, vulnerable woman underneath. Interestingly, Madonna bashed the movie before its release and essentially sank it at the box office, even though her own company had produced it. Ferrara told the A.V. Club he thought she was trying to “beat the critics to the punch” — badmouthing it before they could. It’s possible. Or maybe she saw the finished product — where characters say things like “we both know she can’t act!” — and felt like it hit just a wee bit too close to home. In that same interview Ferrara, who was still clearly holding a grudge, explained how he was able to pull a career-best performance from Madonna. “That’s because she plays an actress who’s so bad,” he said, “the director commits suicide. Who else would be better for the part?” Hey, he said it, not me.

What’s your favorite Madonna performance? Tell us in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

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Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

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Lane 27: Broken Windows

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Lane 69: Filthy Cars

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Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

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Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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